Like countless others, I posted a tribute on Dec. 16 to writer Christopher Hitchens, who died the previous day at age 62. Someone on Facebook replied with a long rant alleging he was homophobic. The evidence was a quote about fellatio. Grievance collectors are free to mine Hitch's extensive output for errors and offenses. He claimed no infallibility. Let me point, however, to a portion of his New Commandments:
"3. Despise those who use violence or the threat of it in sexual relations. 4. Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child. 5. Do not condemn people for their inborn nature. Why would God create so many homosexuals only in order to torture and destroy them?"
At the Intelligence Squared debate in London in October 2009, after cataloging many crimes by the Catholic Church, including the complicity of priests and nuns in the Rwandan genocide, Hitchens denounced the church "for condemning my friend Stephen Fry for his nature, for saying you couldn't be a member of our church, you're born in sin. He's not being condemned for what he does, he's being condemned for what he is. You're a child made in the image of God? Oh no you're not, you're a faggot. And you can't join your church and you can't go to heaven. This is disgraceful, it's inhuman, it's obscene, and it comes from a clutch of hysterical, sinister virgins who've already betrayed their charge in the children of their own church. For shame!"
This impassioned defense of his friend (who was seated beside him) was delivered in the presence of Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria. Hitchens was informed, confident, indignant, often inebriated, and perhaps the sharpest debater of his generation. Instead of taking refuge among the like-minded, he plunged eagerly into battle with his adversaries.
Hitchens's iconoclasm gave offense, but also stimulated much-needed critical thought. He wrote that Mother Teresa "was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction."
He said to a Christianist bully, "I don't want to be told that I have to obey these [religious] laws too, or that my children have to be taught this in school, or that laws have to be written to gratify the bizarre beliefs of a cult like yours." He insisted that "ethical life is possible without religion," while questioning the ethics of theocrats.
He rebuked Archbishop Onaiyekan for the millions of deaths that his church's preachings against condoms helped cause. He said that living under the surveillance of a paternalistic god "would be like living in North Korea." Confronting his cancer, he said, "I'm dying, but so are you." He warned people not to pay credence to any stories about him having a deathbed conversion. He did not go gentle into that good night.
For someone who could be so harsh, Hitchens left many grieving friends and readers behind. The day after his death, I joined about 20 secularists at a vigil outside D.C.'s Wyoming condominium, where he lived. There was cognitive dissonance when they started reading the lyrics of John Lennon's "Imagine" aloud together. Why honor the author of God Is Not Great with a group chant?
But Hitchens's extensive written and spoken legacy is too vigorous to be reduced easily to hero worship. He rejected religious certainty in favor of free inquiry. He urged his listeners, "Take the risk of thinking for yourself." Amen, Hitch, and thank you for your blazing wit and curiosity, which prod us still.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.